Notes from an ICP alum: “Walid Raad” at MoMA

by Pauline Miller

Ever since my acceptance to the inaugural Bruce High Quality Foundation University Gallery Fellowship, a.k.a. BHQFUG (a mouthful, I know), my life has been a bit of a whirlwind. I’ve found myself rushing back and forth between my jobs in Philadelphia to regular meetings and studio visits in New York, constantly pitching proposals to friends trying to solicit their participation in events and exhibitions that haven’t even been fully fleshed out yet, and getting just a tiny bit more sleep than I did during my Div III.

But my constant state of near-exhaustion has regularly been checked by the spaces I stumble into, the people I get to meet, and the wide-ranging works of art and artists projects that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. So I guess that makes up for it.

So when the Bruces announced that their old Cooper Union professor, Walid Raad, wanted to take the FUG fellows along for a tour of his upcoming show at the Museum of Modern Art, I jumped at the chance.

My private tour of “Walid Raad,” a survey of the last 25 years of Raad’s work at MoMA, was not my first time at the Atlas Group rodeo. Just a little over a year ago, Raad performed his lecture on the Atlas Group, a fictional foundation for the preservation of Lebanese culture and history, at UMass Amherst as part of the opening for his exhibition at the University Museum of Contemporary Art. Alongside my classmates and professors, I attended the exhibition opening, the lecture, and a later panel discussion at Hampshire. We quickly realized that although we could not believe everything that Raad told us, the stories he was relaying to us had ties to reality.

I don’t think I could ever forget the fantastical story he told us about the flattening of gallery spaces, how objects had started to overlap and merge into one another, or how the shadows on the floor had began to disappear. It was all so bizarre, I was immediately drawn in.

Nor will I forget that, when Five College professor Lorne Falk introduced the two of us and I told him that his lecture almost gave me a panic attack (that’s another story for another time), he looked me dead in the eyes and said, “oh, I love that.”

Just to give you an idea of what being in a room with Raad is like. Anyway.

The exhibition at MoMA is an amalgam of the objects and performances he has been creating over the past few decades, since his return to his home country of Lebanon. Some of the performance I had experienced before, at UMass, but nothing felt familiar. Somehow, in the shiny new context of the gaping MoMA galleries, Raad’s stories became fresh in my mind.

Again I was told of conspiracies, of the flat space, the missing shadows and the disappeared art objects that seemed somehow to fuse with one another during a transatlantic flight. Again, I was drawn in and found myself scampering to keep up with his stories and ideas, unable to distinguish between his reality and his paranoid musings. But once the guided tour was over, I was struck by how lost I felt. In the sprawling exhibition space, without Raad guiding me along, the work became starkly divorced from the rich context that his stories and speeches had given them, leaving the objects lonely, disjointed. Many of the objects and images themselves are just fragments – bits of debris and destruction, carefully detailed collages of memories both constructed and hazy, continually evolving as he leaves and then returns to them. His own narrative is disjointed, jumping back and forth from past to present and back again, and to relate the experience of his guided tours is a nearly impossible task. There is no way to remember every last detail he mentioned, the innumerable rabbit holes he carried us down, to come close to replicating the hazy unreality that he has spun.

Bruce High Quality Foundation University Gallery Fellows explore "Walid Raad" at MoMA
Bruce High Quality Foundation University Gallery Fellows explore “Walid Raad” at MoMA.

As a collective, the BHQFU fellows would continue to re-hash what we had seen and how we had experienced it with each other for weeks to come, understanding that, even if we went back to view the pieces, with or with Raad’s presence, our experience of them would be completely warped by the insight he had given us. My own experience of the exhibition at MoMA was heavily affected by what I already knew of Raad and his re-telling of history, most of which I miss-remembered, or had become hazy. The more I returned to the exhibition, both on my own and in discussion with others, the less of a grasp I had on the number of concepts and ideas that run deeply through the show. It is easy to explain Raad’s background, his relationship to Lebanon and the western world, but to tap into how he treats his own history, how he experiences memory and narrative, that is a difficult task. And as I continually turn what I know from the exhibition over in my mind, the less sure I am of my own memories.

I don’t know why it is that I have such a hard time articulating what I have learned from his work. It is a new form of institutional critique that goes beyond examining trustees and acquisitions. I think that I have become more paranoid because of it, and better able to pick at the layers of meaning in things that would appear to be, at first glance, inconsequential. Because Raad has warped the way I think, how I experience art and spaces, what questions I ask of myself and of what I am presented with.

The work he has given us in this exhibition itself begs to be deconstructed, though not at first glance. I often think about what it means that Raad is not there to direct every visitor that passes through the MoMA galleries, that he can’t explain to them the narratives behind each and every image. Are they missing out? Is it better that they don’t know? What happens when work is so layered and delicately thought out that perhaps its full value cannot be realized even within a museum or gallery context? Is the work supposed to be completely realized in thisspaces? What does it mean that Raad can walk some visitors through his process, and that others will just breeze through the space, perhaps taking their time to try and work out the puzzling narrative he has laid out for us (but probably not)? How much of this even matters?

I don’t know what it is like to experience Raad’s work without him present. I never have, and because of this I wonder if I ever will be able to. Or if we’re even supposed to.

“Walid Raad” will be up at the Museum of Modern Art until January 30, 2016. It will be up at the ICA in Boston from February 24 through May 30, 2016.

Pauline Miller is an alum and former program coordinator of the ICP. She is currently a Bruce High Quality Foundation University Gallery Fellow and the exhibitions and programming intern at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.

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